Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Begining (of the End)

April 08, 2009

Fang Man and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the members of the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

So this is how it goes. The final Esa-Pekka Salonen-led shows at Walt Disney Concert Hall kicked off on Tuesday with the “Green Umbrella” series for contemporary music. It’s particularly bittersweet in that not only are we losing Salonen, but also composer Steven Stucky, who was also making his last appearance in association with the series since his start with it in 1987. Sadly, it’s unknown whether Salonen’s replacement will have anywhere near the level of interest in this music and whether or not the “Green Umbrella” will be set adrift against the broader scope of L.A. Philharmonic programming remains to be seen. But we still have tonight, and rather than make it some melancholy affair, Salonen and Stucky put together a forward looking program featuring four world premieres from four composers under 35 as well as one of Salonen’s own works. If this was any indication, these final shows will clearly be "events." A packed house showed up filled with out-of-towners from music writer Alex Ross, to the young British composer Thomas Adès.

First up was Enrico Chapela’s Li Po, a 10-minute piece structured around Chapela’s own recording of a poem by fellow countryman José Juan Tablada about the eponymous Chinese poet. Chapela attempts to recreate the sounds of his own voice in the recording for a small ensemble of strings, winds, and percussion. The sound is further augmented with electronic bits from his recorded reading. It’s a bit of a whirlwind that cleverly plays on the original poem, which is written in a way to mimic Chinese calligraphy. Form becomes substance and sound is taken at its word here. Next up was a piece from British-born Anna Clyne entitled Within Her Arms. Written following the death of her mother, this quiet, but surprisingly expansive piece focuses on the resources of a 15 member string orchestra. There was no electronic augmentation in contrast to the rest of the evening, but Clyne still managed a particularly layered effect in taking bits of very pretty melody bordering on folk tunes and overlapping them against one another over and over between different sections of the ensemble. It’s a subdued piece with a big sound and won over many in the crowd. California’s own Emily Gee rounded out the first half of the evening with Mouthpiece XI. Gee had made a reputation for herself with this series of works that exploit non-lingual vocalizations à la Berio and Cathy Berberian. Unusually, Gee often performs the vocal parts in much of her work herself, clicking and popping while cascading out a series of nonsense syllables. It's meatier than one might have expected, creating a sort of beat-box effect for a classical music score. Again amplification and electronic augmentation are the rule here, but the distinctive incorporation of vocal material is unique.

Kandinsky's Deluge

Probably the most ambitious of the new works on the program, though, was Fang Man’s Deluge, a work inspired by the Kandinsky painting of the same name. The music is evocative of the discordant but beautiful structure and color of its inspiration, and the composer noted that she was thinking of incorporating water elements into the music as she went along. But rather than take this in a literal sense, Man often goes instead for a sort of liquid transition between elements in what is often a loud and raucous piece. There were again electronic pre-recorded augmentation to the small orchestral ensemble she had gathered. But here the electronic elements were much more tightly bound to the live material leaving for a smooth flow between them. It was rattling, but with no loss of subtlety. Hopefully, there will be much more to hear from her in the not distant future.

Just for the record, though, there was a little "looking back" allowed during the evening. The evening ended with Salonen’s Floof, a work for five musicians and soprano based on the writing of Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. It was the first piece of Salonen’s played in the “Green Umbrella” series and it returned here with hysterical and precise vocals from Grammy-winner Hila Plitmann. She cooed and babbled throughout the piece, which takes some glancing blows at pop music idioms. It’s funny stuff with some serious underpinnings. In some ways it was telling at the end of the bill to have a piece summing up much of what the younger composers had laid out earlier in the evening. Salonen’s been there. He’s done that. There will be plenty more to hear over the next two weeks, and given the crowd’s standing ovation following a brief tribute video the Philharmonic aired before he came out on stage, it’s going to be quite a time.


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